Senate ESEA Reauthorization Points to What’s Next in Testing

Here in Maine, where SBAC was recently dumped, many of us have been wondering what’s next on the horizon for testing.

In recent posts, I’ve suggested that despite losing SBAC, we may not, in fact, be out of the woods, and that an even more all-encompassing testing scheme may be on the way.

These “next generation” tests, as they have been called by members of the Senate HELP committee and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will be based on the radical transformation of our schools into “competency” or “proficiency” based models of education. This transformation has already begun in Maine, New Hampshire and a variety of other districts across the country.

This model restructures school as we know it, by doing away with “seat time” (time spent in class) and breaking all learning down into a sequence of measurable skills that students must “master” before moving on to the next skill.  Only when you prove that you are “competent”  or “proficient” at all skills in the sequence – regardless  of whether you are 14 or 21-  may you graduate.

If this idea doesn’t make you nervous, perhaps  this quote from an article published in The Washington Post in 1977 about competency-based education will raise some eyebrows:

Guines said the new curriculum is based on the work in behavorial psychology of Harvard University’s B. F. Skinner, who developed teaching machines and even trained pigeons during World War II to carry bombs and detonate them.

The basic idea, Guines said, is to break down complicated learning into a sequence of clear simple skills that virtually everyone can master, although at different rates of speed.

“If you can train a pigeon to fly up there and press a button and set off a bomb,” Guines remarked, “why can’t you teach human beings to behave in an effective and rational way? We know we can modify human behavior. We’re not scared of that. This is the biggest thing that’s happening in education today.

Indeed, competency/proficiency based education has been tried and rejected many times throughout the last century, but due to heavy investments and strategic grant-making of a variety of large foundations, including Gates, Lumina, Nellie Mae, and KnowledgeWorks foundations, endorsements from Arne Duncan and members of the Senate HELP committee, and carefully crafted model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (and the giant corporations it represents), CBE/PBE is now making a rapid comeback.

Please read this previous post for a more comprehensive explanation of who is behind the push for CBE/PBE, and why. (Hint: digital learning and the big profits behind it play a leading role.)

Perhaps because they realized such phrases make parents and teachers bristle, those pushing this idea, and the PR firms they hire, are now careful not to make overt references to behaviorism and animal training; look carefully, however, and you will see that the concept remains the same.

And now,  thanks to the collaboration of KnowledgeWorks and policy makers , if the Senate’s version of the reauthorization of the ESEA remains intact, states like Maine will be free to implement a comprehensive assessment system based on this model. (See here for the specific recommendations  that KnowledgeWorks made to Congress.)

According to the Every Child Achieves Act, States may now design their own “assessment system” that uses “performance-based academic assessments of all students that may be used in a competency-based education model that emphasizes mastery of standards and aligned competencies” and “multiple statewide assessments during the course of the year that can provide a summative score of individual student academic growth.”   (See here for the full text of the Senate version of ESEA, and scroll down to page 23 and 24 to read the text about new “assessment systems”.)

This sounds like something the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) is already prepared to offer us.

So, what can we expect our classrooms to look like if these next generation assessments replace “the big test” (as many “behind the scenes” have been hoping for some time) that we have now?

Probably something like this:


I wonder what the author of this recent New York Times article about screen addiction in children would have to say about this plan?

Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

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